Tuesday, 2 September 2008

King Solomon's Mines (1937)

The full feature film King Solomon's Mines (1937)

In the Imperialist Adventure genre of Great White Hunters and lost civilizations, few tomes stand as tall as Sir H. Rider Haggard's 1885 King Solomon's Mines. This text essentially defined the genre and established its basic tropes... The hero, Allan Quatermain, was the archetypal Great White Hunter figure and through the course of the story, the very British adventurers take upon themselves the burden of Kipling as they set right the wrongs of this unexplored region of deepest South Africa. For this mysterious realm, Haggard delved into Biblical history and the legends of wealthy King Solomon's diamond mines, and in so doing created the "lost world" genre that would be later charted by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As well off as these "boys adventures" were in literature, they flowered with the advent of film. The first full-length Imperialist Adventure film was 1925's The Lost World, which established many of the tropes of the cinematic version of the genre. In this adaptation of Conan Doyle's novel, the Great White Hunters are joined by the romantic interest of a fashionable young lady in search of her father, a previous explorer of the land, and scale a plateau populated with dinosaurs and a rampageous volcano that saves its pyroclastic fury until the expedition arrives. 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man with Johnny Wiesmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan followed, in which the impassible barrier to the unexplored jungle was the forbidding Mutia Escarpment, which ivory hunters returned to in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate before the series went off the rails in subsequent sequels. Between them was the mighty King Kong, in which Carl Denham's film crew had to penetrate an ancient wall and a sheer cliff face on skull Island in order to bring Kong back to civilization... and retread The Lost World's London climax. To crib The Lost World's South American climax, Skull Island was complete disintegrated by a cataclysmic earthquake in Son of Kong. The genre probably tapped out with the now lost 1940 version of the Swiss Family Robinson.

King Solomon's Mines first flickered across the silver screen in 1937, and found itself owing as much to The Lost World as to Haggard's novel. However, as it goes, the film is still a remarkably faithful adaptation and a very entertaining movie in its own right. It is a worthy addition to the canon of Imperialist Adventure films of the Golden Age, and its few faults come as a direct consequence of some of its greatest advantages.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, who would later become a Disney stalwart and responsible for some of the best-remembered films and poorly-recalled Victorian adventure offerings, the focus of this version of King Solomon's Mines is on the hard-up Irish father and daughter duo of Patrick and Kathy O'Brien. Reviewing their options after going bust in the South African diamond rush, they meet up with Allan Quatermain. Coming along with him to meet the English tourists he has been hired to guide, they meet up with a dying Sylvestra Getto and his African guide Umbopa. Before passing, Sylvestra's map tells them of the lost King Solomon's Mines, which sets the elder O'Brien off to cross the parched desert and mountain barrier to the north. Following them are the younger O'Brien, a reluctant Quatermain, the English hunters Sir Henry Curtis and Commander Good, and Umbopa. Here we find the first borrowing from The Lost World, as the love interest leads the Great White Hunters off to find her father.

If you're going to have a love interest, you need to have someone to fall in love with her. In this case, John Loder's Henry Curtis fills the roll of handsome paramour for Anna Lee's Kathy O'Brien quite nicely. Roland Young's Commander Good adds some quite well-timed and well-placed comic relief. He's much like the friend you have who knows he's funny by just whipping off some witty, situational one-liners every now and then. His comedic relief isn't ham-fisted, disruptive or irritating in any manner.

Cedric Hardwicke, of the Universal Studios Monsters movie fame, plays a much gruffer Quatermain, however. The Quatermain of the novel is humble and practical, while the one of this movie is cynical to the point of fatalistic. He seems to have no real joy in his work (at one point exclaiming that with his share of the wealth, he'd buy a flock and keep sheep in the British Isles) and no qualms whatever with telling the girl that her father is dead and everyone else that they're going to die. This Quatermain is a bit player in the film, though, coming in second to the central story of the O'Briens and Umbopa.

The prodigal prince of this unmapped patch of Africa is played by African-American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson to great effect. Only a year off of his iconic performance in Show Boat, you almost hope that the expedition comes across a tributary so that you can hear him belt out "Old Man River". They don't, but they still make ample use of his beautiful bass-baritone voice as he sings the ox-cart along and calls out to the mountains in stirring refrains of misplaced, but still welcome, Negro spirituals. At a critical moment, a native song rallies the oppressed soldiers of the evil pretender, Twala, behind him.

The setting is more than equal to the task of competing with Robeson's voice... Large portions of the film were shot on location in South Africa, using genuine Zulu tribespeople as extras. When Umbopa sings of how he is gonna' climb that mountain, you can almost hear it actually echoing in spite of the dubbed-in version. Offset by some studio and set work, the location shooting has the advantage of directing the action and including the actors... In this respect, the movie is heads above the back projections of documentary footage in Tarzan or the completely contrived scenes in King Kong. King Solomon's Mines is almost in the same epic class as Zulu.

There is a distinct impression, however, that they spent so much on the invaluable location shooting that they didn't have enough left in the budget for some critical special effects scenes later on. I won't be critically spoiling anything if I reveal that the next device of Imperialist Adventure films that King Solomon's Mines borrows from The Lost World is a climactic volcanic explosion that threatens to destroy the mines and murder the heroes. But besides a river of lava and some shooting flames in the belly of the beast, you don't actually see the eruption itself. Instead, you merely read about it in Quatermain's journal after the fact. If Stevenson decided that it was better to write about it than show a shoddy and under-budgeted version of if, then it was a good decision. Either way, though, it was a pity.

Overall, the film's positives outweigh the negatives... it even manages to skirt a lot of the troublesome "White Man's Burden" that slithers into the text and the genre... and King Solomon's Mines is a worthy entry into the richly rewarding period of Jazz Age cinema and Imperialist Adventure films.

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